Surely there’s room for melodrama. It can tell us the truth about big feelings in a lush way. Jacques Audiard’s new film, “Rust and Bone,” incites the kind of excitement that melodrama can generate, because it’s cathartic, too. As with most melodramas, what will happen is writ large in the first act of the film. We meet Alain (Matthias Schoenarts) on a train that’s headed for the south of France; he’s with his son, Sam (Armand Verdure). They’re a feral pair: unwashed, and eating the remains of the various boxed lunches that Alain finds on their way. One has the feeling that they both sleep with eyes open at the back of their head. There’s no language here: Audiard’s camera is quiet and quick as we pick up on father and then son’s scent. On the Cote d’Azur, Alain and Sam bunk with Alain’s sister, Louise (Celine Sallette), who’s a cleaner in a hotel. (She’s married and lives with the big bellied, and taking life as it comes Foued, understatingly played by Mourad Frarema). Alain and Louise are siblings who don’t share much except paternity; they’re kiss of greeting is fleeting, awkward; they don’t have much and you can tell they haven’t been given much, including dreams. An air of fatigue haunts them; they’ve grown weary trying to find people who can love them. Sam loves Alain, but Alain only loves Sam when there’s a woman around who can take care of him; his needs are immediate, quick, just like the jabs and punches he inflicts on his opponents in the illegal fights he participates in for money. And a little glory. He’s always had his body, and any form of attention–from women, from worthy opponents–is welcome, but Alain’s not interested in responsibility, or need, unless it makes him feel good, or his body fills someone’s gaze with longing. Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) doesn’t so much want him when she gets into a brawl in a disco where Alain is a bouncer so much as she needs him to deal with the lout who hassled her in the club, and, after Alain sees her home, the lout she lives with. Marion wears a tight dress at the club; we’re aware of her body, it’s long-legged youthfulness, and the waste in Stephanie’s eyes: who will claim her? When an accident ensues, robbing Stephanie of her legs, and she calls Alain to help her, we find our hearts not in our mouths, but our laps. Cotilliard puts it there. Clinging to Alain, the legless Stephanie is clinging to the sun, the water, the sand–everything she’s ever loved in her town. But what is life without one’s own body, or a body? Is she still a woman without her legs, or a legless appendage tied to Alain’s back, her hair wet with sea making his back go wet, too? Cotillard is one of the more private performers one could ever watch; she works out of the closet of her character’s feelings, first thrusting out a shirt, a jacket, or a coat, that might be labeled with aspects of Stephanie’s feelings before we see Stephanie whole, as herself. (Rachel Weisz was similarly uncanny and selective about what she would and would not show of her character in Terence Davies’ real and fantastic movie, “The Deep Blue Sea.”) Working with Audiard, the actress provide us with three opportunities to see Stephanie whole: when tries to wheel herself around her apartment in her chair, little patches of sunlight on the floor as she moves to disco music, when she gets her prosthetic legs and is walking towards Alain, who waits for her on the boardwalk, and when she gets her thighs tattooed with DROITE and GAUCHE. What’s in the middle? That which Alain learns to crave. And it’s through their lovemaking, and Stephanie’s taking over Alain’s box office when it comes to his fighting, that each learns something about redemption, which Alain can’t face; he’s too busy hunting for discarded food on the train of life. And he only gets off that ride when his lack of attention vis a vis Sam puts his son’s life at risk. It takes near tragedy for us to to change. Which is why melodrama works: who hasn’t been made to pay more attention when a gift horse threatens to close it’s mouth?
– December 7, 2012